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New IRS Direct File program now available in California

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New IRS Direct File program now available in California

If you’re a California resident and haven’t done your federal tax return for 2023, you now have another, more user-friendly option online: the free Direct File service from the IRS.

It’s not for everyone, however. Instead, it’s aimed mainly at people with very simple annual tax returns, which the Treasury Department said amounts to about 1 of every 3 taxpayers.

The tax agency launched the Direct File service in January on an extremely limited basis to make sure its online systems were up to the task. That changed Monday, when the IRS announced that Direct File was available to all taxpayers in California, Arizona, Nevada and nine other states.

Think of Direct File as the IRS’ alternative to the free online tax-filing programs from TurboTax and H&R Block. It provides step-by-step guidance for filling out your tax forms, filing them and either paying any amount you might owe or collecting your refund.

The program’s question-and-answer approach means you won’t have to know which forms to fill out or where on the forms to enter your information. Instead, the program will handle those details for you.

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The IRS already works with several tax-prep companies to offer lower-income taxpayers a free online tax return service called Free File. What makes Direct File different is that there’s no middleman and no income limit for participants — anyone can use it, provided that their tax returns use only the most basic forms.

Specifically, the program will work only for taxpayers whose income is limited to wages reported on a W-2, retirement benefits from Social Security or the Railroad Retirement Board, unemployment benefits or interest income of $1,500 or less. That means if you’re a self-employed person, a business owner, a contractor or a gig worker, or if you have income from a partnership or trust, Direct File isn’t for you.

The Treasury Department estimates that 19 million people in the 12 participating states are eligible to use Direct File this year and that several hundred thousand people will do so.

Direct File also allows you to claim only a truncated list of credits and deductions: the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers, the credits for children and other dependents, the standard deduction and deductions for student loan interest payments and educators’ classroom and professional development expenses. If you’re able to claim other credits and deductions, such as those for foreign taxes paid, child care or retirement savings, or if you cut your tax bill by itemizing deductions (for example, if you have sizable medical expenses), Direct File would not be a good choice for you.

One other caution: The IRS says Direct File will be available only until April 15, when most Californians’ 2023 returns are due. The agency pushed the deadline for taxpayers in San Diego County back to June 17 in response to the federal disaster declaration in that county.

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Direct File runs online only; you’ll need a smartphone, tablet or computer to access it. And to get started, you’ll need to prove to the IRS that you are who you say you are.

The only way to do that this year will be to use the identity verification service ID.me, which takes a scan of your government-issued picture ID, such as your driver’s license or passport, then uses facial-recognition software to match your image from a live chat session or a new selfie against the stored photo. ID.me has raised concerns among some critics, who say it poses too great a threat to privacy and security.

Once you’ve established your identity, the program will check your eligibility, then guide you as you enter information about your income, credits and deductions. You don’t need to download any software, the IRS said; instead, your entries will be saved online, and you’ll be able to pause and resume later without having to start over.

Direct File has a live chat feature to help taxpayers with questions, but it’s not a source of free tax advice.

“IRS customer service representatives can provide technical support and provide basic clarification of tax law related to the tax scope of Direct File,” the agency said in a release. “Questions related to issues other than Direct File will be routed to other IRS customer support, as appropriate.”

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The Direct File service hasn’t been integrated into California’s tax filing system yet, so you won’t be able to transfer your federal information seamlessly to your state return. The state Franchise Tax Board offers a free online return filing system called CalFile whose restrictions are similar to those in Direct File, so if you’re eligible for the latter, you’re probably able to use the former.

If you’re entitled to a refund, tax experts say, you should file your return as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re just making an interest-free loan to the federal government.

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Netflix's password-sharing crackdown is paying off as profits beat Wall Street's forecast

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Netflix's password-sharing crackdown is paying off as profits beat Wall Street's forecast

Netflix’s victory lap as the leader in streaming continued Thursday, as the company said it increased its subscriber base by 9.3 million to nearly 270 million in the first quarter.

Revenue was up 15% to $9.37 billion in the first quarter, the Los Gatos, Calif., streamer reported. Net income was $2.3 billion, compared with $1.3 billion in the same period in 2023.

The company beat Wall Street’s estimates on revenue, subscriber additions and net income. Analysts on average had projected that Netflix would increase its customer base by around 5.5 million subscribers, according to FactSet.

Netflix has impressed investors as the company cracks down on password sharing, grows its lower-priced ad-supported subscription tier and puts out a steady stream of popular original programs.

The steamer’s stock price has increased 30% so far this year and has recovered more than two years after subscriber losses and disappointing results sent it spiraling. Its shares closed at $610.56 Thursday, down 0.5%. The shares fell about 5% in after-hours trading.

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“When analyzing key metrics such as subscribers, profitability, and audience demand, it’s clear that Netflix is pulling away from the competition and everyone else is fighting for second place,” Parrot Analytics analyst Wade Payson-Denney wrote in a report.

Netflix has remained the dominant subscription streaming platform in part because of its content prowess with licensed titles, such as “Suits,” and original programs, including international productions, K-dramas, reality shows, live events and sports documentaries.

In a letter to shareholders Thursday, the company forecast revenue growth of 13% to 15% this year. The number of sign-ups for subscriptions with ads grew 65% in the first quarter.

“We’re off to a good start in 2024,” the letter said.

New shows have included the live-action version of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” based on the popular Nickelodeon series. The series was renewed for two additional seasons. Other popular titles include the fantasy adventure movie “Damsel,” drama “Griselda” and romantic limited series “One Day.”

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Rivals are still trying to match Netflix’s recommendation technology. Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger called Netflix’s technology the “gold standard.” “We need to be at their level in terms of technology capability,” Iger said at a Morgan Stanley conference this year.

lthough many analysts are bullish on Netflix, some note that its growth prospects are limited in the United States and Canada, where many households already subscribe to the platform.

The streamer also needs to replenish its reservoir of popular shows, as some of its series with large fan bases, such as “Stranger Things” and “Cobra Kai,” are approaching their final seasons.

Netflix has been adapting popular manga and anime series such as “One Piece” and working with producers including “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Benioff and Weiss, alongside co-creator Alexander Woo, adapted the Chinese sci-fi trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” into the show “3 Body Problem,” which launched last month.

The company also is investing in live events and sports-related content, including signing a major deal with the WWE to bring its flagship weekly pro wrestling show “Raw” to Netflix in January.

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Analysts are looking for more details about Netflix’s movies strategy, after its longtime film chief Scott Stuber left his position and was replaced by Dan Lin, founder of production company Rideback.

Under Stuber’s leadership, Netflix collaborated with high-profile, A-list stars and directors and won critical acclaim for movies including “The Power of the Dog” and “Roma,” though winning an Oscar for best picture has proved elusive.

Critics have pointed out that Netflix may make more money by investing in series rather than films because there are more hours of content for viewers to consume. Netflix executives have maintained that having original movies on the platform is a key part of their strategy.

“There is no appetite to make fewer films, but there is an unlimited appetite to make better films always,” Netflix co-Chief Executive Ted Sarandos said in an earnings presentation.

Another change that’s afoot — Netflix said starting with its first quarter in 2025, it will no longer provide quarterly membership numbers.

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China’s highflying EV industry is going global. Why that has Tesla and other carmakers worried

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China’s highflying EV industry is going global. Why that has Tesla and other carmakers worried

The U.S.-China rivalry has a new flashpoint in the battle for technology supremacy: electric cars.

So far, the U.S. is losing.

Last year, China became the world’s foremost auto exporter, according to the China Passenger Car Assn., surpassing Japan with more than 5 million sales overseas. New energy vehicles accounted for about 25% of those exports, and more than half of those were created by Chinese brands, a shift from the traditional assembly role China has played for foreign automakers.

“The big growth has happened in the last three years,” said Stephen Dyer, head of the Asia automotive and industrials unit at AlixPartners, a consulting firm. “With Chinese automakers making inroads for most of the market share, that’s a huge challenge for foreign automakers.”

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China’s rapid expansion domestically and abroad has added fuel to a series of clashes between the U.S. and China over trade and advanced technology, as competition intensifies between the two superpowers.

The U.S. has lofty goals for expanding its own EV industry. California, which accounted for 37% of the nation’s electric car sales as of 2022, aims to phase out purchases of new cars that run on fossil fuels by 2035.

Concerns about Chinese oversupply have come just as a broader slowdown in sales has hit EV makers. Tesla announced Monday that it would lay off more than 10% of its workforce in an effort to reduce costs and increase productivity.

In the company’s last earnings report in January, Chief Executive Elon Musk warned about the competitiveness of Chinese brands. BYD, China’s largest EV maker, surpassed Tesla in car sales last year.

“If there are not trade barriers established, they will pretty much demolish most other car companies in the world,” Musk said.

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This year, Manhattan Beach-based Fisker Inc., an electrical vehicle startup, cut 15% of its workforce, had its stock delisted and said it might file for bankruptcy protection. Apple also recently announced an end to its long-held ambitions of making a self-driving EV.

One area in which Chinese automakers handily beat Western competitors is on price, thanks to government subsidies that supported the industry’s initial rise as well as cheap access to critical minerals and components such as lithium-ion batteries, which account for about a third of the overall cost of production.

“It always had these ingredients waiting around,” said Cory Combs, an associate director for Chinese energy policy at the consulting firm Trivium China. “It was kind of a magic moment for these things to come together.”

That enabled the success of BYD, which started producing lithium-ion batteries in 1996 and making cars in 2005.

In March, BYD cut the price of its cheapest EV model in China to less than $10,000. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average EV retail price is $55,343 in the U.S., compared with $48,247 across all vehicles.

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While pricing wars have forced Chinese automakers to slash profit margins at home, they can charge more in overseas markets, further incentivizing exports as domestic growth has slowed. According to research firm Gavekal Dragonomics, demand in China has cooled due to the removal of tax breaks and an increase in the use of public transportation post-pandemic.

“There is a ton of pressure, especially if you are a smaller player, to find a market that is less competitive,” Combs said. “And every market is less competitive than China’s.”

Though 27.5% tariffs have in effect locked Chinese EVs out of the U.S. market, the fear that the cheaper models could eventually undermine American automakers has started to spread.

The Alliance of American Manufacturing warned in a February report that allowing Chinese EVs into the country would be an “extinction-level event” for the U.S. auto industry. The group also cited the risks of Chinese auto companies building facilities across the border in Mexico that could circumvent tariffs.

When the global market is flooded by artificially cheap Chinese products, the viability of American and other foreign firms is put into question

— Janet Yellen

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After a trip to China in April, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen expressed concerns about government-funded overcapacity in Chinese manufacturing of electric vehicles, batteries and solar panels. She noted that other advanced and emerging markets shared those worries, and compared the oversupply to a flood of low-cost Chinese steel hitting the global economy more than a decade ago.

“When the global market is flooded by artificially cheap Chinese products, the viability of American and other foreign firms is put into question,” Yellen said.

The European Union has opened an investigation into government subsidies utilized by China’s EV industry and whether such support violates international trade laws.

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China’s state news agency pushed back on claims of overcapacity in an April article, which said exports accounted for 12% of China’s EV sales last year. It attributed the industry’s success to competitive pricing and technology, rather than government subsidies.

After meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in April, Chinese President Xi Jinping decried protectionism in other countries and said Chinese EV exports have helped ease global inflation and combat climate change.

How the U.S. is addressing the emergence of China’s EV dominance has already become a hot-button issue for the presidential election in November.

President Biden has encouraged the domestic expansion with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes electric vehicle tax credits for U.S. manufacturers, but not if they are sourcing minerals and materials from “foreign entities of concern,” such as China. Meanwhile, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has claimed electric car manufacturing will reduce auto industry jobs, and called for a rollback of the EV-friendly policies enacted during Biden’s term.

Politicians from both parties have proposed even harsher tariffs on Chinese-made EVs should they try to enter the U.S. market, prioritizing the protection of U.S. jobs over goals to reduce carbon emissions.

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“That will make it even more important for Chinese companies to set up local assembly operations to minimize those costs,” said Gregor Sebastian, senior analyst at the New York-based research firm Rhodium Group. “A lot of companies are adopting a wait-and-see approach.”

Even without Chinese auto imports, the technology within the vehicles has unnerved U.S. officials. In March, Biden announced an investigation into Chinese-made “smart cars” and the data the internet-connected vehicles could collect on American users. Collaborations between U.S. companies and CATL, the Chinese battery-making behemoth, have also been subject to greater scrutiny as tensions between the two countries have worsened.

But China has spent decades cementing its status as a global leader in procuring minerals and developing critical technologies such as EV batteries while the U.S. has fallen behind. That will make it harder now for Western automakers to wholly shut out Chinese suppliers, said Tu Le, founder and managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a consulting firm.

“If automakers are going to build affordable, clean-energy vehicles this decade, the only way that happens is by using Chinese batteries,” Le said.

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Money Talk with Liz Weston: Can my credit score really be marred over $20?

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Money Talk with Liz Weston: Can my credit score really be marred over $20?

Dear Liz: I have had great credit for years. Late last year, I somehow overlooked a $20 payment due from one of my credit cards. My score dropped by more than 50 points, from about 815 to 765. I quickly paid the $20 and contacted the issuer. They told me they were required by law to report my delinquent payment, which I found out was not true. I went back and forth with them, but they would not do anything to help. I did file an inquiry with one of the credit bureaus, but I was told there was nothing they could do without the issuer’s cooperation. I spoke with someone in the issuer’s corporate offices, but he could not have cared less. It turns out that this hit on my credit could last seven years — and all over $20. I charge thousands of dollars every year on credit cards and pay the balance every month. Is there anything else I can do to restore my credit to the previous levels?

Answer: The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act does require creditors to report accurate information to the credit bureaus. However, some people say they’ve been able to get their accidental late payments removed by writing “good will” letters to their issuers. These letters explain what happened, emphasize the customer’s previous record of on-time payments and politely request the issuer extend some good will by removing the one-time lapse from their credit reports.

Your issuer is under no obligation to grant your request, and some categorically say they won’t. But it can’t hurt to try.

You also can use this incident as a reason to review how you pay your credit cards. Setting up automatic payments to cover at least your minimum payment will ensure this doesn’t happen again. Keep an eye on your credit utilization as well. Aim to use 10% or less of your credit limits. If you find it difficult to keep your charges below that level, consider making multiple payments each month to keep your balance low.

The unexpected drop in your credit scores was painful, but the good news is that you still have great scores. This oversight is unlikely to have any lasting effect on your financial life. And if you continue to use credit responsibly, your scores will improve over time.

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Complicated condo question

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about gifting a condo. I understood the first part of your answer: If the person receiving the gift lives in the condo for two of the last five years, then there is no capital gains exposure. The second part of your answer is a little confusing to me. You wrote, “However, her taxable gain would be based on your tax basis in the property: basically what you paid for the home, plus any qualifying improvements.” So, if my mother gifted her condo to me and she paid $50,000 for it 40 years ago, and the condo today is selling for $250,000, what is my capital gains exposure? To keep it simple, assume no capital improvements or other factors.

Answer: Living in and owning a home for two of the previous five years does not erase someone’s capital gains exposure. Instead, they’re entitled to exclude up to $250,000 of home sale gains from their income.

In the case you describe, your potentially taxable capital gain would be $200,000. That’s the selling price of $250,000 minus your mother’s tax basis (which is now your tax basis) of $50,000.

If you owned and lived in the home at least two of the previous five years, your exclusion would more than offset your gain, so the home sale wouldn’t be taxable. If you didn’t make it to the two-year mark, you could get a partial exemption under certain circumstances, such as a work- or health-related move. For more details, see IRS Publication 523, “Selling Your Home.”

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner®, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.

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